Stewart banks on experience

David Tremayne hears how a former champion is getting back on to the grid
Yesterday at Silverstone, under the opulent awning that marks the home of Paul Stewart Racing, Jackie Stewart was a busy man. The 70 seats were about to be occupied by corporate diners - he was having what his aides call a "wall-to-wall" day of gladhanding. The same time next year he can expect to be a bit busier, as he oversees final qualifying as the owner of the Stewart-Ford grand prix racing team.

The ball is already rolling fast. Engineers are at present conducting tests on a 50 per cent scale model in the Swift wind tunnel in St Clemente, California. Only Williams and Ferrari develop their cars in similar facilities. It is a smart move, though completing the car by December will be a race in itself.

Stewart sounds quietly confident about finance. "I think our funding will be completely in place in . . ." a small pause, "three weeks. For five years." Sceptics will smile, but he has never been a man given to mendacity, nor does he kid himself. "Things have probably come together in the last five or six weeks. You couldn't have expected it any earlier. But listen, I'm not counting eggs before they've hatched. The ink's got to be dry and the cheque in the bank. But under the circumstances, I must say we are very pleased to be where we are at the moment. Now, we may get a few bad surprises, who knows, but I don't think so. The companies that we are really deeply into final issues with are all tremendously good." Hewlett-Packard's name is but one to have been mooted.

Stewart's biggest asset is his ability to reach the men who make the decisions, rather than the middlemen who like to think they do. "I probably have a better advantage in that respect than anybody in racing," he said. But with a fine sense of proportion he added: "Within our little world and culture we know who the players are, but I've always had to remind myself - even after the first two World Championships - that people I sit next to at dinner parties don't necessarily know what I do. I was at a dinner party the other night in London, and there were only two people at a table of 10 who even knew I was thinking of starting a grand prix team. It's the world of fairly big players, so you'd be rather naive if you thought you were important. They bring you down to earth, because to them it's so insignificant."

Stewart could have bought an existing team, such as Lotus or Footwork, but took the long view. "We wanted to start something with no baggage and fewer compromises. We wanted a new piece of paper all the way through. My son Paul and I are the sole partners. We make all the decisions, and we can make them quickly."

One such decision concerned drivers. "We will be doing that in the next six weeks. Eight weeks maximum." The favourites are the Brazilian Gil de Ferran, starring in IndyCars at the moment, and the Dane Jan Magnussen, McLaren's Formula One test driver. Both are former Paul Stewart Racing champions in Formula Three.

"The more we think about it the more we see that it's not absolutely necessary to have an established foot in the shoe. What we've really got to look at is years three, four and five, and we've got to be very sure that whoever we take on now is going to be capable of delivering then. But it may then be that we have to buy in the current man, because we would be dealing with puppies if we took on drivers who are new to the business. And puppies need training, and sometimes pee on carpets. You think you've trained them but they return to the same habit occasionally. So we have to think that our puppies would become trained labradors, and not only see the object they've got to pick up but, if they haven't seen it, have a nose on them so sharp that they could find it. And they will need the discipline always to bring it back, no matter what they have to go through." The continence of De Ferran and Magnussen is rarely questioned.

Stewart says his expectations of the first season are modest. "Upper midfield, in qualifying or racing, would be terrific by the end," he responds. But inevitably, given the 27 grands prix victories and three world titles to his name, the expectations of others are bound to exceed the initial ability of the team to deliver.

Later yesterday the Stewart camp buzzed as guests tucked in before watching the action from the Stewart suite. It might not yet be within the walls of the Formula One paddock, but the operation bears the hallmarks of smoothness. "We might disappoint a few people who have unrealistic expectations next year," he conceded, "so we must be very good off-track." That side of things is already up to speed.